Executed in 1928, Oreste e Pilade (Orestes and Pylades) depicts two melancholic, statue-like figures seated together in contemplation. Part mannequin, part statue, part architectural ruin, these twin figures, executed in charcoal grisaille, form a sombre and mysterious classical landscape. Looking like an ancient, nocturnal stage-set for the commedia dell’arte, it is, however, a landscape that appears to be coming to life; transfiguring into human flesh in front of the viewer’s eyes.
The title of the work derives from Greek mythology. Orestes and Pylades were known for the strength of their friendship and love for one another. In some stories, this was deemed to be a homoerotic love. Upon his return from Troy, Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, famously sought revenge against his mother and her lover Aegisthus for the murder of his father. In Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, Pylades aided Orestes in this fateful act and later stood by his friend throughout their many other travails.
Here, in de Chirico’s Oreste e Pilade the two figures take the form of the poet-philosophers, metaphysicians or architects, that De Chirico depicted frequently throughout the mid-1920s, often seated in interiors or by windows. A fusion of human and architectural form, these faceless figures were a development of de Chirico’s early mannequins and statues, transformed into new and more surprising forms evocative of a strangely burdened and melancholic humanity. De Chirico, as he recalled in 1938, had been inspired to create these figures after visiting a Gothic cathedral, where he was ‘struck by the strange and mysterious impression made on me, by certain figures, representing seated saints and apostles [...]. The very short legs, covered by the folds of their clothing formed a sort of base, of indispensable foundation but only to sustain the torso-monument, and the arms naturally stretched out of proportion to the torso’ (Giorgio de Chirico ‘Naissance du mannequin,’ 1938, quoted in Nature According to De Chirico, exh. cat., Rome, 2010, pp. 139-140).
For de Chirico, the image of the poet-philosopher was an icon of the power of art and creativity, symbolising the transformation, through creative thought, of the ordinary into the extraordinary. ‘Art’, de Chirico once wrote, ‘was liberated by philosophers and modern poets. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were the first to teach us the deep meaning of the non-sense of life and how such non-sense could be transformed into art, in fact, it should have constituted the intimate skeleton of an art truly new, free and profound’(Giorgio de Chirico, ‘Noi metafisici’, 1919 quoted in op cit, p. 269)
In Oreste e Pilade these figures of transformation are themselves rendered in a condition of metamorphosis. Using watercolour over his charcoal drawing, de Chirico has rendered one of the figures’ elongated, outstretched arms in coloured flesh tones. Here, the inanimate appears to be becoming animate. These seated figures, which, with their architectural interiors, seem chair-like, form a counterpart to de Chirico’s other central theme of these years – the depiction of simple furniture placed outside in the landscape. In these pictures it was the landscape that was humanized by the unusual, but distinctly human-looking presence of furniture within it. Here, a pictorial reversal of this motif has a similar effect: an ancient, sterile, classical landscape appears to be gaining new life through an act of pictorial metamorphosis that anticipates similar pictorial transformations later made by René Magritte.